The 10 Commandments of Chindōgu, the Japanese Art of Creating Unusually Useless Inventions

Back in the 1990s I’d often run across vol­umes of the Unuse­less Japan­ese Inven­tions series at book­stores. Each one fea­tures about a hun­dred osten­si­bly real Japan­ese devices, pho­tographed and described with a dis­arm­ing straight­for­ward­ness, that mash up oth­er con­sumer prod­ucts in out­ward­ly bizarre ways: chop­sticks whose attached minia­ture elec­tric fan cools ramen noo­dles en route to the mouth; a plas­tic zebra cross­ing to unroll and lay across a street at the walk­er’s con­ve­nience; an invert­ed umbrel­la attached to a portable tank for rain­wa­ter col­lec­tion on the go. Such things, at once plau­si­ble and implau­si­ble, turn out to have their own word in the Japan­ese lan­guage: chindōgu (珍道具), or “curi­ous tool.”

“There’s an essence to chindōgu that can’t be ignored,” writes Michael Richey at Tofugu, where you can view an exten­sive gallery of exam­ples. “They need to be use­ful, but only just so. Some­thing peo­ple could use, but prob­a­bly won’t because of shame,” a famous­ly pow­er­ful force in Japan­ese soci­ety.

They also adhere to a set of prin­ci­ples laid down by Ken­ji Kawaka­mi, for­mer edi­tor of the coun­try house­wife-tar­get­ed mag­a­zine Mail Order Life, who first revealed chindōgu to Japan by show­ing off his pro­to­types in the back pages. These ten com­mand­ments of chindōgu are as fol­lows:

  1. A Chindōgu Can­not be for Real Use — They must be, from a prac­ti­cal point of view, use­less.
  2. A Chindōgu Must Exist — A Chindōgu must be some­thing that you can actu­al­ly hold, even if you aren’t going to use it.
  3. There must be the Spir­it of Anar­chy in Every Chindōgu — Chindōgu inven­tions rep­re­sent the free­dom to be (almost) use­less and chal­lenge the his­tor­i­cal need for use­ful­ness.
  4. Chindōgu Tools are for Every­day Life — Chindōgu must be use­ful (or use­less) to every­one around the world for every­day life.
  5. Chindōgu are Not for Sale — Chindōgu can­not be sold, as this would go against the spir­it of the art form.
  6. Humor is Not the Sole Rea­son for Cre­at­ing a Chindōgu — Even if Chindōgu are inher­ent­ly quirky and hilar­i­ous, the main rea­son they are cre­at­ed is for prob­lem solv­ing.
  7. Chindōgu are Not Pro­pa­gan­da — Chindōgu are, how­ev­er, inno­cent and made with good inten­tions. They should only be cre­at­ed to be used (or not used).
  8. Chindōgu are Nev­er Taboo — Chindōgu must adhere to society’s basic stan­dards.
  9.  Chindōgu Can­not be Patent­ed — Chindōgu can­not be copy­right­ed or patent­ed, and are made to be shared with the rest of the world.
  10. Chindōgu Are With­out Prej­u­dice — Every­one should have an equal chance to enjoy every Chindōgu.

These prin­ci­ples result­ed in the kind of inven­tions that drew great fas­ci­na­tion and amuse­ment in their home coun­try — you can watch a short Japan­ese tele­vi­sion broad­cast show­ing Kawaka­mi demon­strate a few chindōgu above — but not only there. The Unuse­less Japan­ese Inven­tions books came out in the West at just the right time, a his­tor­i­cal moment that saw Japan’s image shift from that of a fear­some inno­va­tor and eco­nom­ic pow­er­house to that of an inward-look­ing but often charm­ing nation of obses­sives and eccentrics. Of course such peo­ple, so West­ern think­ing went, would come up with fash­ion­able ear­rings that dou­ble as earplugs, a cup hold­er that slots into a jack­et pock­et, and shoes with toe-mount­ed brooms and dust­pans.

Kawaka­mi has con­tin­ued to invent and exhib­it chindōgu in recent years, and even now his work remains as ana­log as ever. “There’s always some process in ana­log prod­ucts, and these process­es them­selves can be their pur­pose,” he told the Japan Times in a 2001 inter­view. “If you look at dig­i­tal prod­ucts, they all iso­late peo­ple and leave them in their own small world, depriv­ing them of the joy of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers… I can’t deny that they make life more excit­ing and con­ve­nient, but they also make human rela­tion­ships more shal­low and super­fi­cial.” Those wise words look wis­er all the time — but then, you’d expect that degree of insight into 21st-cen­tu­ry life from the man who may well have invent­ed the self­ie stick.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

“Inemuri,” the Japan­ese Art of Tak­ing Pow­er Naps at Work, on the Sub­way, and Oth­er Pub­lic Places

An 82-Year-Old Japan­ese Audio­phile Search­es for the Best Sound by Installing His Own Elec­tric Util­i­ty Pole in His Yard

Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Col­lect­ing Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A Liv­ing Shrine to New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Google Glass & Oth­er Epic Cor­po­rate Fails

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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